NEW YORK — Josie Natori may appear to be a pint-sized lady of leisure, but don’t let the impeccable couture apparel, a socialite’s smile and a contagious laugh fool you into thinking she’s anything but a hard-as-nails businesswoman.

As a powerhouse in the intimate apparel industry, Natori Co., founded in 1977 by Josie Natori and her husband Kenneth, represents an atypical story in the manufacturing sector: They are survivors. As a team, they have managed to last for 25 years in an industry battered by a frenzy of bankruptcies and mergers and acquisitions. Their longevity comesfrom an astute sense of business acumen combined with a personal warmth that has charmed and disarmed supporters as well as competitors.

With a background in finance — not fashion — Josie Natori left a well-appointed job as the first woman vice president at Merrill Lynch to pursue a career in importing, designing, merchandising and manufacturing. Kenneth Natori, a former managing director of Shearson Lehman, joined his wife as business partner in 1985.

While Josie Natori, chief executive officer, continues to nurture the company as if it were a baby, she jokingly said she’s happy her husband has found another interest outside of the world of lingerie — golf.

"I’m now a golf widow," she said, noting that "Ken keeps extremely busy" at the Glen Arbor Golf Club he bought in 2000. The Gary Player-designed course is nearby the Natori’s Jacques Grange-designed country home in Pound Ridge, N.Y.

Asked what motivated her to enter the lingerie field, chief executive officer Josie Natori said starting her own business was a lifelong dream and it has become as fulfilling as her 30-year marriage and her son "Kenneth junior."

Looking back to 1977, Natori admits she didn’t know how to baste a stitch or sew a button. But she began developing a signature look in sleepwear and at-homewear, and later daywear, by combining the delicate handiwork of her native Philippines with a sophisticated, continental look. The results were ultrafeminine confections with delicate hand-embroideries on lightweight, linen-like woven cottons. A key item — an embroidered peasant blouse that doubled as a night shirt — has become Natori’s top-selling anniversary item this year.A number of executives, including retail consultant Ann Keenes, said they believe Natori was a forerunner of creating out-of-the-box concepts, which unfortunately, were misunderstood before their time. Case in point: In the early Eighties, Natori was an advocate of at-homewear and home accessories for different lifestyles. That idea didn’t take off until the late Nineties. She also promoted innerwear that doubled as rtw — most notably sexy-looking bustiers. But that notion wasn’t accepted until Madonna’s 1986 Blonde Ambition tour, when Madonna wore Jean-Paul Gaultier’s bullet bustier as a fashion item.

An example of Natori’s ingenuity was a visit last year to vintage textile boutiques in Lyon, France, where she was looking for inspirational prints. One tapestry print of a Korean tea party in a garden, circa 1750, struck her fancy. The print was reinterpreted into one of Natori’s best-selling designs this year, called Asian Tea Party.

The first six months in business, the company generated $125,000. Today, it has wholesale sales that exceed $50 million, including a line of accessories and a licensed line of foundations bearing the Natori name with the Bestform Unit of the Vanity Fair Intimate Apparel Coalition of VF Corp.

But Natori said it was tough in the beginning to get the message through to retailers and consumers that lingerie was a fashion product, not a commodity. It only made her more determined.

"I live and breathe the business. There is something about this [apparel] category that is very emotional to women, and I get a high on that. I really believe it’s about the product and that’s why we are here 25 years later. It stands for something," Natori said.

The company covers several labels, products and price points. The Natori label, which features signature prints and embroideries, is divided into two entities — Natori Black label, which caters to a sophisticated woman who loves elegant and luxurious silk sleepwear and at-homewear, plus silk and lace daywear, and Natori White Label, a line aimed at women who prefer feminine yet modern fare in jerseys, woven cotton and cotton knits.

The Josie label was repositioned in 1998 as a young contemporary resource with a "hip point of view" in fashion prints and colors, while the Cruz line is geared to a mainstream consumer who wants pretty, modern sleepwear and at-homewear that is fashion-safe.Suggested retail for the Natori Black Label collection ranges from $150 to $274. The Natori White Label line retails from $70 to $130, while the Josie line averages $38 to $68. The Cruz line, which is part of Kefco Inc., a sister company of Natori, is tagged $24 to $48. The opening price range of the licensed Natori briefs at Bestform is $19; bras go to $42 and bustiers top the list at $80.

Meanwhile, Natori — who is always decked out in bold jewelry and accessories that make a statement — described herself as an "accessories freak."

"I have always loved accessories, and designing accessories comes very easy to me. The hardest part for me is to have self-control," she said.

Her namesake company began quietly adding a selection of scarves and wraps in 1999, but it really burst into the accessories scene in 2001 with the launch of handbags, which has become its largest accessories category. Initially designed for evening occasions, the collection now includes daytime styles as well. Belts were added this fall.

Since its start, Natori’s accessories have been infused with Asian themes and rich materials such as silk, crocodile leather, pig suede and detailed embroidery. In handbags, touches have included handles in hammered brass and black resin, mink trims and kimono fabrics. The spring line offers alligator clutches, satin evening bags, black leather hobos and weave baskets.

"No one needs another plain handbag," Natori noted. "We have designed bags that make women feel luxurious and special."

Other items round out the realm of Natori accessories. In shawls, fabrics such as silk, linen and pina — a gossamer sheer fabric spun from pineapple leaves — are decorated with tribal motifs and hand-stitched embroidered patterns. Belts are made of suede as well as black resin with bright stones like coral, jade, pink quartz and a lustrous mother-of-pearl.

While Natori declined to say whether any other accessory categories are on tap, she professes a love for jewelry, and many of the stones and materials could easily be translated into necklaces and earrings. She acknowledged, though, that the firm is working on a secondary accessories line that would be younger in sensibility and could have wider distribution.Natori said accessories give her important real estate at stores, since the category typically is sold on the main floor. Suggested retail for shawls start at around $150; handbags average from $600 to $900 and go as high as $7,000.

"We are very focused on building this business and I think accessories could be as big as intimates," she said. "Eventually, I would like the businesses to be about half and half. I’m a gambler and I believe in taking risks. If you don’t move, you don’t get anywhere. And if it’s a mistake, time will tell."

Observers say Natori has earned the respect of retailers and her peers because of an unwavering openness to new ideas and opportunities. And, of course, there’s her trademark nonstop energy when it comes to tracking down the newest concept, fabric or product.

Michael Gould, president and chief executive officer of Bloomingdale’s, said: "I think Josie is a survivor because she has a sense of fashion and an understanding of business that is well balanced. She’s never been afraid to try something new or venture into the unknown. On one hand, she has the product skills, and on the other hand, she has the personality, the communications skills and the image."

Traveling around the world two to four times a month, Natori, a type-A personality, seems to run on pure adrenaline. She rarely eats a full-course meal, preferring her longtime favorites — scrambled eggs, baked potatoes with caviar and champagne. Natori typically gets about four hours of sleep, is known to go directly from an airport to a trade show with an entourage of designers and merchandisers, canvas a fair thoroughly for several days, all the while shopping boutiques for the latest trends.

At the Natori’s Jacques Grange-designed apartment in Paris —which guests often describe as a "mini Versailles" — she often burns the midnight oil with designers, financiers, manufacturers and retailers, exchanging the latest fashion gossip and factoids.

"I don't understand why my staff is always so tired. I’m twice as old as they are," she joked.

But she is quick to point out that her staff is the foundation of the company. Executive assistant Susan Borman has been with the firm since 1978; Jeanette Cantone, senior vice president of merchandising and design and senior designer Laurie Ann Ford, both have been at Natori since 1985, and president and chief operating officer Kathy Nedorostek, joined the company in 1998.Producing 70 percent of goods in the Philippines as well as contracting out work that is inspected by the Natori-owned quality control team, the three family-owned facilities employ 1,000 workers, Natori said. She added that the same generations of sample workers have been with the firm for 25 years.

So in between all of the schmoozing, traveling and shopping, how does Natori keep her finger on the nuts and bolts of the business? "Always keep up with the times, keep up with what the consumers want, and constantly keep evolving."

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